ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hal Linden's Secret Identity and Jennifer Simard Gets Sassy at the Drama League Awards

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky. 

Seth with Hal Linden
Seth with Hal Linden

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This week I'm off to Raleigh/Durham North Carolina on Wednesday to do Deconstructing Broadway as well as a master class. Then on Sunday, I'm doing another master class... or should I say Mastre Classe. Oui, I'll be in Montreal!

We're going to take a 12 hour Amtrak up to Montreal which is really scenic and great for getting writing done. However, before I focus on the future, let me obsess on the past (my mother's specialty). Last week, I had Hal Linden on my SiriusXM talk show, "Seth Speaks." Turns out, he began as a musician. He played reeds (especially clarinet) and performed in the Army big band during the Korean War. Once in a while, he'd sing a song in one of the army concerts with his instrument around his neck. At one of the shows, they asked him to play a role. He had never really acted before, but the moment he got his first laugh, he wanted more. He had always planned on joining a big band when he got out of the army, but the end of the war happened to coincide with the end of the big band era so he used his GI bill money to go to acting school. He was working in summer stock and one of the girls he was seeing who was the chorus of Bells Are Ringing told him there was an opening in the show. It was a small chorus role that would also understudy Sydney Chaplin (the leading man). Since Hal had no New York experience, he had to audition starting with the stage manager, then the casting associate, then to the creative staff and finally opposite Judy Holliday!

He got the part and began rehearsals on a Monday. They decided to teach him the Sydney Chaplin role first (instead of his chorus part) and it was a lucky thing because there was suddenly an outbreak of the Asian Flu (!) and Hal was on for the leading man that Saturday afternoon. Five days after he began rehearsal! He hadn't even finished blocking the show but he had a very good sense of it — he had seen it a lot since he was dating one of the girls in the show. When he got to the scenes he had never staged people in the cast simply pushed him where he needed to be. That happens all the time when someone goes on in a show with a lack of rehearsal. My friend Jennifer Simard taught me the show biz term which is "shove with love." As helpful as everyone was, it wasn't always able to override the fact that he hadn't rehearsed with any of the actors in the show; during one of the dances someone whispered, "Go across the stage to Louise" and he responded with, "Who's Louise?"

Linden as "Barney Miller"

He did so well, however, that they never taught him the chorus role he was supposed to do and instead made him the official stand by. Then, he wound up taking over the role! It was extremely rare in those days for an understudy (with no credits) to take over the leading role in a musical, and he did it in his very first Broadway musical! He went from show to show in the 60's, continuing to take understudy roles because he had four kids and needed to make money. He got an offer to replace Larry Blyden as the snake in The Apple Tree but he was still asked to also be an understudy, this time for the leading man, Alan Alda. Hal agreed to do it... if he got the same billing as Larry Blyden. He was very proud that an understudy got billing above the title. As a matter of fact, I watched the YouTube video for the 1971 Tony Awards when he won Best Actor in a Musical for  The Rothschilds and he ended his speech by saying, "I would like to say a word to my friends in the balcony, for all of you who spent those awful Saturday mornings in understudy rehearsals, this is for you. Keep the faith!" You can watch the whole show here, and it's one of the absolute best ones ever because it's the year that they have someone from the last 20 Tony winning musicals sing a song from their show. So thrilling! Hal, of course, is now more famous for television than he is for Broadway, and that happened in a very arbitrary and wonderful way. In the early '70's, Danny Arnold was doing a film in Manhattan and brought his family with him. Every day he'd film and send his family on New York excursions (Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building etc). One day his family rebelled and told him that they were sick of going off by themselves and wanted to be with him. It turned out to be a day where he didn't have to be on the set so he joined them on their afternoon activity which happened to be a matinee of The Rothschilds. A few years went by and he went on to create "Barney Miller." The network executives sent him a list of actors who had high so-called TVQ, but he told them that he already had an actor in mind... someone he had seen at a matinee performance a few years back. Hal told us that Danny hadn't come backstage after he saw the show or sent a letter or contacted him in any way. Simply out of the blue, two years later, Hal was offered the title role in a new television show that lasted for eight seasons! So, to all of you actors out there, no marking! You never know who's in the crowd that might change your career one day.

Seth and his dad

During my interview I played the theme song to "Barney Miller." Probably the most memorable part is that cool bass solo at the beginning. Turns out, it was not written in the original song! It happened because the theme needed to be a few seconds longer and they asked the bass player to improvise something — and he came up with that classic beginning. PS, Hal knows the theme song very well to this day because he admitted it's now his cell phone ring tone! Listen

It was very emotional for me to meet Hal because of two reasons. In 1974, when I was a little kid, my parents decided to take the money we would have spent on a vacation during December and spend it on taking the whole family to three Broadway shows; we saw Grease, Pippin (with Ben Vereen and Betty Buckley) and a revival of The Pajama Game. Even though I later went on to love the score to Pippin and I wound up playing keyboard for the revival of Grease for years, the show that had an incredible effect on me was The Pajama Game. I went home and listened to the original cast recording non-stop, especially the opening number which I became obsessed with. That was the show that started my lifelong love of Broadway. Who was the star of that revival? Hal Linden! I told him what a big deal it was for me to meet him but didn't want to cry on the air so I had to completely shut down emotionally while I was telling him. Basically, I wound up sounding like a combination of a Stepford Wife and a severely medicated Jessica Lange in "Frances."

The other reason Hal figured so prominently into my life is because any time I've had to describe my father, I've always said he looks like Hal Linden. I told Hal and he immediately said that anyone who has graying hair and mustache is said to look like him. I argued that father really did look like him but he refused to bite. Instead, he wound up telling me a story about the head of William Morris, whom  everyone always said looked exactly like him. One year after the Tony Awards, Hal was being interviewed on the red carpet. He said all of the "wire women" (the ladies who interviewed the stars) were usually actresses and one of them went over to Hal and told her listening audience, "This man is one of the most important in all of show business. He can make anyone's career skyrocket." She then smiled and added, "Of course, I could never even get in see him!" Hal realized the woman thought he was head of William Morris! He corrected her and they continued the interview. Actually, no. He smiled and said, "This Monday. My office. 10 AM." Really! To this day, he doesn't know what happened that Monday. You can see Hal (aka my father's doppleganger) at Café Carlyle May 20-24. He sang "Just In Time" on my show and played clarinet and he was amazing. Such a fantastic musician.

Seth interviews Zach Braff

On Friday, the Drama League asked me to do the red carept interviews for their awards ceremony and it was star studded! Zach Braff, Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara, Neil Patrick Harris, etc. Afterwards, I stayed for the ceremony because Jennifer Simard was nominated for the Distinguished Performance Award. Everyone who was nominated was asked to make a short speech from the dais onstage. Only one person wins the award so her "competition" was mind-boggling. Not only everyone I just mentioned, but mega movie/TV stars like Denzel Washington and Chris O'Dowd. Jennifer's speech was so great! She thanked me and my co-writer Jack Plotnick for creating the nun character that she said is the greatest role she's ever played in her life. At the end of her speech, she asked Bryan Cranston if he'd leave the outgoing message on her phone and told him to look for her after the ceremony. "It'll be really easy to find me," she added, "because I'll the person who just won."

Jesse Tyler Ferguson was the host and did a great job. When he presented the award being given to Barbara Cook, he said,"She originated the role of Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, Amalia in She Loves Me..." Then he said, "These are all the role Kelli O'Hara played in high school, but Barbara did them with the people who wrote them!" I'm signing off! This week at "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," I have Linzi Hateley, the original Carrie in Broadway's Carrie!. For reals! For more info, get thee to SethTV.com. Peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

Jenifer Simard and Seth at the awards
Jenifer Simard and Seth at the awards